Plant Alkaloids

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Volume 7 (Number 3) Fall 1998

Plants That Make You Loco

Mind-Altering Plant Alkaloids

Introduction, Disclaimer & Warnings:

This WAYNE'S WORD® is dedicated to those mind-altering plants that have been used (and sometimes abused) by people, but have also provided us with some valuable medicinal drugs. For countless generations they have given native people throughout the world a spiritual means of communicating with their gods and deceased loved ones.

The article will discuss plants containing different types of mind-altering alkaloids. It will contain photos of some of the plants, illustrations of their potent alkaloids, simplified explanations of the mechanisms of these poisons, and anecdotal tidbits not usually found in this type of subject matter.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the plants discussed in this article contain very poisonous alkaloids which can be lethal if ingested in sufficient quantities. Native people developed time-tested religious rituals using these plants that were passed down through countless generations.

This article is mostly about the adaptive advantage of alkaloids in plants, and some remarkable examples of psychoactive (hallucinogenic) alkaloids found in some of the most amazing plants on earth. Stimulant (or tranquilizer) alkaloids such as nicotine from tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), caffeine from coffee (Coffea arabica), and cocaine from coca (Erythroxylum coca) are highly addictive and clearly alter one's mental and physical state, but are beyond the scope of this article. Likewise, narcotic, pain-relieving alkaloids from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), including codeine and morphine, are excluded from this article. Although marijuana (Cannabis sativa) is often discussed in books about mind-altering plants, its active chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is not an alkaloid. It does not contain nitrogen and consists of both terpene and phenolic subunits--hence, it is called a terpenophenolic compound. For those interested in further reading, the references at the end of this article are a good place to start.

During the past 130 million years, flowering plants have colonized practically every habitat on earth, from arid deserts, boggy meadows and windswept alpine summits, to sun-baked grasslands, lush rain forests and wave-battered rocky shores. They have replaced most of the ancient ferns and seed plants that dinosaurs subsisted on, and developed a complex and fascinating relationship with insects and mammals. During these countless centuries of time, flowering plants have gradually evolved all sorts of ingenious protective devices to discourage hungry herbivorous animals. Leaves and stems have developed a variety of vicious spines and stinging hairs (trichomes). In some plants, the dense covering of silvery hairs may also provide other ecological advantages such as solar reflection and insulation in arid environments. But mechanical defenses, such as spines and trichomes, are of limited value and probably would not deter all hungry herbivores, particularly the chewing and sucking insects. Therefore, plants have developed a "chemical warfare," a defense strategy based on a vast arsenal of chemicals which are toxic or distasteful to animals. According to Daniel Janzen, noted authority of the Costa Rican rain forest, developing seeds of the tropical liana Mucuna (including M. urens and M. pruriens) are nearly free from seed predators. [These vines produce the distinctive hamburger-shaped "sea beans" that drift ashore on tropical beaches throughout the world.] In addition to a dense covering of stinging trichomes, the pods of Mucuna are rich in the potentially toxic amino acid L-dopa. [L-dopa, precursor of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, is given to patients suffering from Parkinson's Disease.] Just as genetic variability and time allow agricultural pests to tolerate pesticides, so can some herbivores circumvent a plant's natural chemical defenses. This "predatory pressure" has resulted in the evolution of an endless array of complex plant molecules, from gums and terpenes to alkaloids and phenolic compounds. For example, in nettles (Urtica species) the sophisticated defense chemicals acetylcholine and histamine are employed in an ingenious system of "injection hairs" strategically placed throughout the plant. When we touch these plants, we may be accidental casualties in a chemical warfare between plants and herbivores that has waged through countless millennia.

One of the largest groups of chemical arsenals produced by plants are the alkaloids. Many of these metabolic by-products are derived from amino acids and include an enormous number of bitter, nitrogenous compounds. According to R.F. Raffauf (Plant Alkaloids: A Guide To Their Discovery and Distribution, 1996), more than 10,000 different alkaloids have been discovered in species from over 300 plant families. Alkaloids often contain one or more rings of carbon atoms, usually with a nitrogen atom in the ring. The position of the nitrogen atom in the carbon ring varies with different alkaloids and with different plant families. In some alkaloids, such as mescaline, the nitrogen atom is not within a carbon ring. In fact, it is the precise position of the nitrogen atom that effects the properties of these alkaloids. Although they undoubtedly existed long before humans, some alkaloids have remarkable structural similarities with neurotransmitters in the central nervous system of humans, including dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine. The amazing effect of these alkaloids on humans has led to the development of powerful pain-killer medications, spiritual drugs, and serious addictions by people who are ignorant of the properties of these powerful chemicals.


A Tree Protected By Ants Instead Of Alkaloids

Thousands of different alkaloids have been discovered from throughout the plant kingdom, but there are some species that do not contain any of these bitter, nitrogenous compounds. One of the most remarkable examples of the "competitive disadvantage" of a tree unable to produce alkaloids is the bullhorn acacia (Acacia cornigera) of Central America. The common name of "bullhorn" refers to the large, swollen thorns (technically called stipular spines) that occur in pairs at the base of leaves, and superficially resemble the horns of a steer. In fact, the thorns of A. cornigera, and a related species A. collinsii, are so striking that they are often strung into unusual necklaces and belts. In El Salvador the horn-shaped thorns provide the legs for small ballerina seed dolls which are worn as decorative pins.

According to the famous botanist G.L. Stebbins (Flowering Plants: Evolution Above The Species Level, 1974), other species of Acacia growing in the same region of Central America (including A. chiapensis and A. macrantha) produce alkaloids, but grow much more slowly and live in drier areas than A. cornigera. Apparently these other species of Acacia pay the price for their alkaloid defense system in terms of a slower growth rate, which enables them to compete only in the drier regions where the growth of competing vegetation is also slower and less vigorous. The ability of A. cornigera to enter more moist, lush vegetation areas is apparently related to its evolution of another defense system that depends on a little hymenopteran helpmate rather than the production of bitter alkaloids.

The "swollen-thorn" acacias of Central America are truly remarkable trees. In the wild, their enlarged, hollowed-out stipular spines are occupied by fiercely biting-stinging ants that protect them from browsing herbivores and epiphytic plants that might shade them out. The swollen thorns are not galls, they are not produced in response to chemical or physical stimuli from invasive insects imbedded in their tissues. The amazing thorns are genetically-programmed structures that are formed with or without the presence of symbiotic ants. On wild trees they are inhabited by colonies of Pseudomyrmex ferruginea, very aggressive ants with a painful sting. Disturbed ants release an alarm pheromone and rush out of their thorn "barracks" in great numbers. According to Daniel Janzen (Costa Rican Natural History, 1983), livestock can apparently smell the pheromone and avoid these acacias day and night. Getting stung in the mouth and tongue is an effective deterrent to browsing on the tender foliage. In addition to protecting A. collinsii from leaf-cutting ants and other unwanted herbivores, the ants also clear away invasive seedlings around the base of the tree that might overgrow it and block out vital sunlight. According to Daniel Janzen (Smithsonian Contributions to Botany Number 13, 1974), the Central American swollen-thorn acacias lack the chemical defenses of most other acacias to discourage ravaging insect predators and competition, and symbiotic ants have taken over this vital role. The acacias reward their ant helpmates with thorn "condos" to live in, carbohydrate-rich nectar from glands on the leaf stalks, and nourishing, protein-lipid morsels called Beltian bodies on the leaflet tips. There is no known function for Beltian bodies, except to provide food for symbiotic ants.

Prior to settling on a thorn acacia, the winged virgin queen ant goes on a mating flight to the highest treetop or nearby hill. Here she gets inseminated by a winged male and then hunts for an acacia in which to lay her eggs. [This "hilltopping" phenomenon also occurs in San Diego County, California, where sexually mature adult male and female butterflies fly upslope to a rendezvous point at the summit!] The queen ant cuts an entrance hole into a green thorn, hollows it out, and then deposits her eggs. Subsequent entrance holes are cut by the new generations of worker ants. All this astonishing, complicated behavior has evolved in a tree that for some reason doesn't synthesize alkaloids.

An Acacia Protected By Ants Instead Of Alkaloids

Chile peppers in the wild may also benefit from a naturally-occurring alkaloid present in their fruits. The active ingredient causing the intense burning pain when you chew into the walls of these fruits, especially the placental region where the seeds are attached, is the alkaloid capsaicin. So potent is this alkaloid that one millionth of a drop can be detected by the human tongue. Capsaicin is not broken down during the digestion process--this is why you often get burned several hours later after dining on chile peppers. Like other alkaloids in the chemical arsenal of plants, capsaicin may serve to discourage mammalian fruit predators. Botanists believe that birds are immune to the burning sensation of capsaicin, and may serve to disperse the seeds. Capsaicin may prevent hungry mammals from devouring the fruits, so that they can be eaten by fruit-eating birds who are attracted to bright red fruits. Passing through the bird's digestive tract relatively unharmed, the small seeds are dispersed to other favorable regions. According to D. Dewitt and P. W. Bosland (Peppers of the World: An Identification Guide, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1996), there are 5 species of Capsicum peppers native to the New World: C. pubescens, C. baccatum, C. annuum, C. frutescens and C. chinense. The hottest chile peppers belong the C. chinense group, including the notorious habanero. Although this species is named "chinense," it is not from China. Actually, its center of origin is thought to be the Amazon Basin of South America.

See Article About Hot Chile Peppers


The Deadly Datura

There are approximately 25 different species of Datura throughout the world, including Europe, Africa, southeast Asia, Central and South America, Mexico and the United States. They are often called jimsonweed or "thornapple." The latter name refers to the spiny seed-bearing capsules. Most of the species are low, shrubby or sprawling annuals or perennials, but some tree-like forms may reach 11 meters (36 feet) in height. The tree-like forms are occasionally cultivated as ornamentals and are usually placed in the genus Brugmansia. They generally have the same characteristic trumpet-shaped flowers as Datura with striking color variations of red, pink and yellow. Both genera belong to the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae), along with the deadly nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) , tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum), eggplant (Solanum melongena) and potato (S. tuberosum). Many species of Solanum (called nightshades) are quite poisonous to humans if eaten raw. Incidentally, the new sprouts of potato tubers contain the toxic alkaloids solanine and solanidine. Until about a century ago the tomato was thought to be poisonous because of its toxic relatives.

The common native Datura of the western United States, with rank-smelling foliage and large, white flowers up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long is D. wrightii. Sometimes the flowers are tinged with purple and resemble oversized petunia or morning glory blossoms. It is a sprawling perennial with an enormous taproot that may extend more than 60 centimeters (2 feet) into the ground. D. wrightii has a large geographic range, including California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is often listed in older references as D. meteloides, a name that actually applies to a similar Mexican species, D. inoxia ssp. inoxia. Another species with smaller flowers, D. discolor, is native to desert washes and riverbeds of southeastern California and Arizona.

The large, trumpet-shaped flowers of jimsonweed (Datura wrightii) are sometimes tinged with purple and resemble giant morning glory blossoms. It actually belongs to the tomato family (Solanaceae) along with petunias, potatoes and tomatoes. This remarkable plant is common along roadsides and riverbeds throughout the western United States, and is one of the largest and most striking of all native wildflowers.

Athird species, Datura stramonium, is naturalized throughout the United States. Most older references list D. stramonium as an Old World species naturalized as an weed in North America. According to Dr. Robert Bye of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (personal communication, 1987), D. stramonium probably originated in the New World and migrated to the Old World during pre-Columbian time. It can readily be distinguished from D. wrightii by its more erect habit, smaller flowers and distinctive angular or prismatic calyx. It is a cosmopolitan annual weed and prolific seed-producer. A dozen viable seeds planted in fertile soil in spring may give rise to nearly 50,000 seeds by late summer, an increase of more than 400,000 percent.

Although jimsonweed is synonymous with several species of Datura, this unusual common name is actually derived from D. stramonium. In 1676 British soldiers stationed in Jamestown, Virginia became intoxicated by D. stramonium when it was inadvertently included in their salads by the regimental cooks. The episode was widely publicized and the plant culprit became known as "Jamestown weed", and later as jimsonweed.

The leaves, stem, root and fruits of Datura contain a battery of tropane alkaloids, the most potent of which are atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. These alkaloids affect the central nervous system, including nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord which control many direct body functions and the behavior of men and women. They may also affect the autonomic nervous system, which includes the regulation of internal organs, heartbeat, circulation and breathing. One autonomic response of atropine is the dilation of pupils, once considered to be a beautiful and mysterious look in Italian women. In fact, belladonna means "beautiful lady," so named because sap from the closely related belladonna plant (Atropa belladonna) was used as eye drops to dilate the pupils.

The action of tropane alkaloids at the cellular level is complex. It is summarized by R.E. Schultes and A. Hofmann in the The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens (1973) and in Medical Botany by W.H. Lewis and M.P.F. Elvin-Lewis (1977). Tropane alkaloids are found in many other poisonous plants, including henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), pituri (Duboisia spp.), and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), all of which were used extensively in witches' brews and folk medicines.

A common property of tropane alkaloids is a methylated nitrogen atom N-CH3 at one end of the molecule (see illustration at left). This chemical structure is also found in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which transmits impulses between nerves in the brain and neuromuscular junctions.

The anesthetic properties of tropane alkaloids may relate to their interference with acetylcholine, perhaps by competing with it at the synaptic junctions, thus blocking or inhibiting nerve impulses. It is interesting to note that the infamous tropane alkaloid, cocaine, is also a local anesthetic when injected into skin or muscle tissue. This property led to the discovery and synthesis of the more potent compound, novocain, widely used in dentistry.

Without getting into complicated anatomy and physiology, one nerve cell (neuron) connects to an adjacent neuron by a long extension called an axon. The axon branches into axonal endings, each of which attaches to the adjacent neuron at a synaptic knob filled with acetylcholine. The minute gap or synaptic cleft within this knob is only about 0.02 micrometers. As a nerve impulse (wave of depolarization or action potential) reaches this gap, acetylcholine diffuses across the synaptic cleft and activates the adjacent neuron. Acetylcholine in the synaptic cleft is deactivated or broken down by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, thus shutting off the action potential. Organophosphate insecticides, such as malathion and parathion, bind to active sites on this enzyme, thus preventing the normal shut down of nerve impulses and destroying the nervous control of insects. Nerve gasses developed during World War II have a similar effect on the nervous system. Gulf War soldiers carried an atropine syrette to counter the possible effects of nerve gas.

Depending on the dosages, several tropane alkaloids of Datura (when absorbed together) may have synergistic properties resulting in extreme hallucinations, delirium and death. Since the alkaloids are fat soluble they are readily absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. Volumes have been written about the uses and properties of Datura in the Middle Ages. Most of the uses involved the consumption of potions or concoctions made from various parts of the plant.

During ancient religious rituals in India, seeds were eaten by priests to induce hallucinogenic, prophetic and oracular states. European priests apparently drank Datura for the same reason. Some authorities believe the intoxicating smoke inhaled by Greek priests over 2,000 years ago at the Oracle of Delphi was Datura. Thieves in India and Europe used Datura for centuries as "knockout drops" to rob their stupefied victims. The plant was also known in China, where a law prohibited mixing it with wine and other drinks.

In the East Indies, women fed Datura leaves to beetles, and then fed the poisonous dung to faithless lovers. Prostitutes in India added the seeds to their patron's drinks to induce sexual excitement. In fact, the use of Datura as an aphrodisiac spread throughout India, the Far East and Europe, and was an important ingredient in love potions and witches' brews. Specially prepared salves and ointments were also applied to various parts of the body. The famous seventeenth century Dutch artist, David Teniers the Younger, made several paintings of witches preparing for their demonic orgy or sabbat. The scenes frequently depicted a nude witch being anointed while she straddled a broom. According to M.J. Harner, writing in Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973), the use of a broom or staff was undoubtedly more than a symbolic Freudian act, for it served to apply the salves to sensitive vaginal membranes.

Clay tablets from Babylonian and Assyrian ruins indicate that Datura was used medically in ancient civilizations several thousand years ago. Greek and Roman physicians used Datura mixed with opium as a sedative and general anesthetic during surgery. In fact, the use of scopolamine (one of the alkaloids in Datura) plus morphine as an effective pain reliever and sleep inducer was common practice until the nineteenth century.

One of the most interesting medical cases of the 20th century involved a German physician, Dr. Carl Gauss, and the Lutheran Church. In 1905, Dr. Gauss used extracts from Datura and morphine to induce twilight sleep treatment for women experiencing difficult child birth. The church elders denounced Dr. Gauss because the Old Testament said that women were to bring forth in pain (Genesis 3:16). The combination of scopolamine (one of the active alkaloids found in Datura) plus morphine was used for years as an effective pain reliever and sleep inducer; however, it is generally considered unsatisfactory for women in labor because of hallucinogenic side effects on the mother, and it may repress breathing of the newborn.

Datura had a number of uses among Indian tribes of the United States, as well as Mexico and South America. In fact, it is difficult to find a tribe that didn't use a species of Datura from their region in one way or another. The hallucinogenic uses involved drinking an infusion made from the crushed roots or sometimes the crushed seeds fermented in water. Some aboriginal Indians in South America gave a Datura-alcohol beverage to wives and slaves of dead warriors and chieftains. The powerful brew induced stupor before they were buried alive to accompany their dead husbands and masters on the long journey to heaven. The high priests of some tribes took Datura in order to communicate with spirits of the dead and with their gods. The brilliant red-flowered tree Datura (Brugmansia sanguinea) is used today by herbal healers called "curanderos" in several countries of South America.

Probably the best known use of Datura by several North American Indian tribes was the puberty ceremonial dances involving the drinking of a "toloache" (Datura) infusion by young boys preparing to enter manhood. The ceremonies generally involved wild erratic dancing, varied hallucinations, and finally unconsciousness.

Datura alkaloids even have modern medicinal uses. The fat solubility of tropane alkaloids is employed in a remarkable remedy for seasick mariners called Transderm Scop®. A small, medicated disc resembling a circular Band-Aid® releases small amounts of scopolamine into the bloodstream for up to 3 days. The anti-nausea effects of scopolamine may relate to its anticholinergic action on the central nervous system, which results in inhibition of the vomiting reflex.

See Deadly Daturas In Full Bloom


The Jimsonweed Junkie Moth

The nocturnal blossoms and pollination ecology of Datura wrightii are among the most ingenious and unusual of all wildflowers of western North America. The entire corolla is neatly folded or pleated (plicate) and twisted (convolute) in the bud forming a compact cylinder. Each day at dusk during the summer months the buds begin to gradually unfold. Each corolla slowly unfurls and then suddenly snaps open as the intertwined lobes come lose from one another. At this instant a powerful fragrance is emitted.

Five long stamen filaments are attached to the funnelform corolla at the throat. The filaments extend as ridges down the inner corolla tube, forming 5 narrow canals to the base of the ovary where the disc-shaped nectary is located. The nectar canals can best be seen by examining a corolla tube in cross section. The curious name "revolver flower" refers to nectar canals which resemble the cylinder chambers of a 5-shot revolver. At night the nectar oozes along the length of the canals within the corolla tube.

During mid and late summer the white, fragrant blossoms are frequently visited by large nocturnal hawk moths (family Sphingidae). They are sometimes called sphinx moths because the alarm posture of the larva resembles the Egyptian sphinx. Several species of hawk moths are known to visit blossoms of Datura wrightii, but two of the most common are Manduca quinquemaculata and M. sexta. The larval forms of both are better known as tomato and tobacco hornworms.

Since Datura, tomatoes and tobacco all belong to the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), the larvae are apparently content to feed on whichever plant is available to them. The larvae are remarkably camouflaged with green markings and are difficult to spot as they rapidly devour your tomato plants. After feasting on Datura (or your tomato plants) all summer, the robust, ravenous caterpillars crawl to the ground and burrow into the soil where they undergo pupation. Unlike many other moth larvae they do not spin a cocoon. Probably every tomato gardener has unearthed the large, carmel-colored pupa with its peculiar "jug handle" appendage, which is actually a case for the developing proboscis of the adult moth.

In warm regions there may be two generations per year: summer pupae produce adults after only a week or two; fall pupae remain in the ground until the following late spring or summer. The adult moth emerges from the pupal case and pushes out of the soil, eventually flying off into the night. After mating the gravid (pregnant) female lays her eggs on a convenient Datura plant--or on your prize-winning tomato plants while you sleep.

Adult moths have remarkable proboscides (tongues) up to 12 centimeters long (over 4 inches), long enough to reach the base of a 10-11 centimeter (4 inch) corolla tube. When the moth is not feeding the remarkable tongue rolls up into a neat, compact coil. The common white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) of the American southwest, with a medium proboscis of 3-5 centimeters (2 inches), can only reach nectar in the upper part of the nectar canals. Unlike the Manduca moths, its pupa lacks the characteristic "jug handle" appendage.

Drs. Verne and Karen Grant at the University of Texas have made detailed observations of hawk moth behavior (Botanical Gazette 144: 280-284, 1983). The hawk moth approaches the Datura flower with its proboscis extended, lands on the blossom, crawls onto the corolla throat, and inserts its proboscis into the nectar canal. This is somewhat unusual because on most types of flowers hawk moths feed from a hovering position. While feeding they often flap their wings against the corolla throat. The proboscis becomes moist and sticky after insertion into the nectar canal, and pollen from anthers adheres to it readily. Pollen also gets on the head and other furry body parts. Thus pollen is transferred from one flower to another as the moth rubs against sticky receptive stigmas at the tips of long exerted styles. According to the Grants, hawk moths are the only flower-visiting insect with mouthparts that fit the long, slender nectar canals of Datura wrightii.

Another fascinating aspect of the Grant's research concerns a rather unconventional type of floral reward for hawk moths visiting Datura blossoms. Several intoxicating alkaloids are known to occur in Datura, but heretofore have not been correlated with pollination. Apparently Datura nectar is "spiked" with alkaloids and the hawk moths seem to like it and come back for more. Sometimes they arrive early and hover around the flowers, impatiently waiting for the blossoms to "pop" open. Outside the windows at the WAYNE'S WORD® headquarters we have observed what appear to be intoxicated moths flying erratically around D. wrightii, clumsily landing on blossoms and crashing into leaves or falling upon the ground. With a flashlight their eyes glow bright red in the darkness.

Although the coincidence of proboscis and floral lengths in hawk moths and Datura is quite remarkable, these coadapted partners have the ability to obtain nectar and set seeds in the absence of each other. According to Verne Grant (Botanical Gazette 144: 439-449, 1983), hawk moths may feed on a variety of bee flowers and hummingbird flowers, and pollen-collecting bees may visit Datura blossoms in late afternoon and early morning. The hippo staff at WAYNE'S WORD® has observed large carpenter bees (Xylocopa) and bumble bees (Bombus) on the blossoms of D. wrightii, busily collecting pollen from the anthers.

Flowers of some Datura species are also homogamous (stamens and pistils mature at the same time) and are self-compatible and partially self-pollinating. It is thus possible for one partner to migrate beyond the range of the other partner for a time. According to Verne Grant, flexibility in the pollination system permits migrational and evolutionary change. During times of general flower scarcity, hawk moths are more dependent on Datura and related sphingophilous (hawk moth-loving) blossoms because of the reliable nectar source which is unavailable to other animals.

There are many other examples of large, white blossoms pollinated by nocturnal hawk moths, including the fragrant gardenias of French Polynesia and South Africa. In fact, to reach the nectar of a Madagascar orchid (Macroplectrum sesquipedale) requires a 30 centimeter (eleven inch) proboscis. This remarkable orchid is also known as Angraecum sesquipedale. Long before it was found in nature, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace (founding fathers of the principles of evolution) predicted that it would be a hawk moth.

This beautiful orchid native to Madagascar is often called the "Darwin orchid" (Macroplectrum sesquipedale), also known as Angraecum sesquipedale. In fact, to reach the nectar of this orchid requires a 30 centimeter (eleven inch) proboscis to penetrate the long nectar spur (white arrow). Long before it was found in nature, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace (founding fathers of the principles of evolution) predicted that it would be a long-tongued hawk moth.

Although the potent alkaloids of Datura have produced untold suffering and psychedelic binges among people through countless generations, they may also be an ingenious strategy to insure repeat visits by long-tongued hawk moths through the medium of drug addiction. When the moths sober up they come straight back for more nectar. Only recently are scientists beginning to solve the mysteries of plant toxins and how they may serve as chemical defenses or attractants, rather than simply nonadaptive by-products of plant evolution.

See The Moth That Pollinates Jimsonweeds
The White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata)


Old And New World Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

Most fungi are not deadly to humans and many are perfectly edible (and are quite delicious); however, some species are poisonous and contain potent neurotoxins. Placing a silver coin in a pan of cooking mushrooms to see if it turns black is not a reliable method of testing poisonous mushrooms. Unless you understand fungal terminology and know how to use a good taxonomic key (such as Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, 1986), the staff at WAYNE'S WORD® does not encourage self indulgence on wild mushrooms. The beautiful, red, fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) is unmistakable with its bright red cap covered with white scales. It contains the toxic alkaloid, muscimol, which is derived from ibotenic acid--an amino acid. In Europe the mushrooms were reportedly left in open dishes to kill flies; however, according to some authorities, the flies are merely stunned or stupefied by the toxin, and may even regain control and fly away. Although it is poisonous to humans, there are other species of Amanita that are much more dangerous and are potentially lethal if ingested. Some of these dangerously poisonous species are death cap (A. phalloides), death angel (A. ocreata), and panther amanita (A. pantherina). Fortunately these latter deadly poisonous species are not bright red and are seldom confused with A. muscaria; however, they may be confused with other edible mushrooms by inexperienced gourmets. According to David Arora (Mushrooms Demystified, 1986), this species may be one of the most common causes of mushroom poisoning in the Pacific Northwest. David Isaak (personal communication, 2002) stated in a recent e-mail message that in the Pacific Northwest, a number of people gather "the panther" for culinary purposes; cooking it in several changes of water to remove "most" of the psychactive materials.

Mr. Wolffia Overindulging On Bolete Mushrooms
A Common Wild Mushroom That Can Make You Sick

When ingested by humans, Amanita muscaria may produce visions and delirium, and it is perhaps one of the oldest known hallucinogens. Recent studies suggest that this mushroom was the mysterious God-narcotic "Divine Soma" of ancient India. Thousands of years ago, Aryan conquerors who swept across India, worshiped soma, drinking it in religious ceremonies. Many hymns in the Indian Rig-Veda are devoted to Soma and describe the mushroom and its effects. According to the Rig-Veda, Soma is without leaves, seeds or branches, with a head and stalk or pillar [the structure of a mushroom]; its dazzling red skin is like the hide of the bull [the red cap]; its dress like that of a sheep, with woolly fragments remaining when the envelop bursts [the outer membranous envelop called the universal veil breaks as the stalk grows upward, leaving white remnants on the red cap]. This is a remarkably accurate description of the fly agaric mushroom (A. muscaria). There are reports of Siberian tribesmen who ingested the mushroom to get intoxicated. Since the active chemical (muscimol) passes through the body relatively unaltered, others would drink the urine from these men to get high. This way a few mushrooms could inebriate many people relatively safely and efficiently. Lapland shamans eat fly agaric mushrooms for enlightenment, and some authors have postulated that this may have given rise to the flying reindeer and the red- and white-costumed Santa Claus legends.

Apparently not everyone agrees that the "Divine Soma" is Amanita muscaria. According to Terrence McKenna (Food of the Gods, 1992), the active alkaloid in fly agaric mushrooms (muscimol) doesn't produce the psychoactive effects described in the Rig Veda and other literature. Although the identity of the Divine Soma was eloquently presented by R.G. Wasson in 1971 (Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality), Terrence McKenna has continued to question the effects of Amanita muscaria, and suggested other possible candidates. Based on first-hand experience with these hallucinogens, he has suggested that a psilocybin "magic mushroom," such as Stropharia cubensis, is the true Divine Soma. In fact, he also states that the use of mind-altering psilocybin mushrooms by ancient humans in Africa may have been a catalyst in the development of language and religion in primitive cultures.

Amanita muscaria was apparently one of the sacred hallucinogenic mushrooms of the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs. [Other New World psychedelic genera included Psilocybe, Paneolus, Conocybe and Stropharia]. For the Indians of Mexico, Central and South America, partaking of these mushrooms was a deeply religious experience, enabling them to communicate with their gods. Cortez reported a mushroom (resembling Amanita muscaria) being eaten during the coronation of Montezuma, and in Guatemala stone carvings dating back to 1000 BC depict curious figures with umbrella-like tops resembling the caps and stalks of an Amanita mushroom. Mushrooms are also depicted in ancient Peruvian vessels and in the Mexican Codices. One drawing shows an animal-like messenger from god offering the sacred Amanita to a ruler seated on a throne. And a fresco in a Roman Catholic Church in Plaincouralt (Indre), France depicts Adam and Eve on either side of a tree of knowledge that is unequivocally a branched Amanita mushroom. Some scholars believe that the original story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where Alice speaks to a green caterpillar who is seated on a red- and white-capped mushroom, is actually the interpretation of a mushroom experience by the author, Rev. C.L. Dodgson of Christ Church College in Oxford (better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll). Another hallucinogenic "high" that is commonly depicted in paintings and children's stories is the infamous, "politically incorrect" picture of a witch flying on a broom--the effects of a potion made from the deadly alkaloids of several solanaceous herbs, including jimsonweed (Datura stramonium).


New World Mushrooms Containing Natural LSD

According to R.E. Schultes and A. Hofmann (Plants of the Gods, 1979), a number of other hallucinogenic mushrooms are used by shamans in Mexico, Central and South America, including the four genera Psilocybe, Paneolus, Conocybe and Stropharia. The exact species selected by different shamans is determined partly by personal preference and partly by the purpose of their use. Since mushrooms are often seasonal, their regional availability may also be a factor in the selection process. The Aztecs referred to these mushrooms as "teonanacatl" (flesh of the gods).

When the Spaniards conquered Mexico, they were appalled to find the natives worshipping their deities with the help of inebriating plants. Although the Spanish conquerers hated and attacked the religious use of all hallucinogens, including "peyotyl" (peyote), "ololiuqui" (morning glory), and "toloache" (Datura), they especially resented the psilocybin mushrooms "teonanacatl." In order for the Aztecs to carry on their cultural traditions without persecution, the use of some of these hallucinogens went "underground." According to R.E. Schultes (1976), the Aztecs may have tried to protect their real sacred plant (peyote) by convincing the Spaniards that all their teonanacatl were dried mushrooms, when actually many of the "mushrooms" were really the dried, shriveled crowns of a sacred peyote cactus. The Spaniards first misidentified peyote as a mushroom in the sixteenth century when they stated that the Aztec substance "teonanacatl" and peyote were the same. It is easy to see how the Spanish authorities could have mistaken the dried crowns or tops (buttons) of peyote cactus for the caps of teonanacatl mushrooms. The Aztecs may have fooled their conquerers into thinking that these religious plants were mushrooms, while the identity of one of their most spiritual and sacred plants (peyote) was a cactus. Even in the 1900s, botanists and anthropologists concluded that teonanacatl and peyote were the same drug. This mistake was perpetuated until 1936 when hallucinogenic mushrooms were rediscovered and definitely linked to early Mexican ceremonies.

See Dried Psilocybe and Peyote Side-By-Side

The psychoactive alkaloid in the teonanacatl mushrooms is psilocybin, a potent indole alkaloid (see next paragraph). Psilocin, a dephosphorylated version of psilocybin, is about 10 times stronger. After ingestion by humans, psilocybin is automatically converted into psilocin. Most psilocybin-containing mushrooms have only a trace of psilocin. According to David Aurora (1986), the common psilocibin mushroom of the Pacific coast of North America, Psilocybe cyanescens has a higher concentration of natural psilocin and is appropriately named "potent psilocybe." Although two of the most famous species of psilocybin mushrooms are Psilocybe mexicana and Stropharia cubensis, there are literally dozens of other species in the above 4 genera with similar hallucinogenic properties. In fact, Paul Stamets (Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World, 1996) describes all of the species and includes color photographs. Like so many LBM's (Little Brown Mushrooms), they are difficult to identify unless you are familiar with mushroom structure and spore taxonomy, and have a good compound microscope at your disposal. In fact, two deadly look-alike LBM's (Galerina autumnalis and Pholiotina filaris) resemble certain species of Psilocybe. The small ring on their stems (called an annulus) and rusty brown spores (rather than black spores) are "dead" give aways to avoid these potentially lethal mushrooms.

Indole alkaloids contain the indole carbon-nitrogen ring which is also found in the fungal alkaloids ergine and psilocybin, the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the mind-altering drug LSD. [See illustration at left showing 5-sided ring with N at the bottom.] These alkaloids may interfere or compete with the action of serotonin in the brain.


Ergot: A Fungus Disease Of Rye That Contains LSD

One of the most amazing stories about naturally-occurring alkaloids in fungi concerns ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus that infects grains of rye and related grasses. One of the psychoactive components of ergot fungus is the alkaloid ergine (d-lysergic acid amide), better known as natural LSD. The more potent synthetic LSD, (d-lysergic acid diethylamide), also known as LSD 25, is one of the most powerful psychoactive drugs known. LSD 25 was originally synthesized from natural pshchoactive alkaloids in ergot. According to Lewis and Lewis (1977), it is 4,000 times more powerful than mescaline. Natural LSD (ergine) is also found in the seeds of two species of Mexican morning glory vines which are still ingested by native Indians in an important medicinal and religious ritual.

Ergot forms a dark, compact, fungal mass called a sclerotium where the grain would normally develop. One or several of these pelletlike sclerotia can be seen in an infected grain spike, typically extending out from the bracts (glumes). When separated from the grain spike, the sclerotia superficially resemble rat droppings (rat pellets). The sclerotia are the source of the potent alkaloids in Claviceps purpurea. In late spring, when rye plants are in bloom, the overwintering sclerotia from the previous year's crop produce stalked ascocarps resembling microscopic fungal fruiting bodies. The head of each ascocarp contains many embedded perithecia. The perithecia contain numerous saclike asci, each with eight ascospores. The ascospores infect the young, developing grains (ovaries) of rye plants, eventually replacing them with purplish-black sclerotia. Because it produces ascospores within saclike asci, Claviceps is placed in the fungal Class Ascomycetes.

Go To The Fungal Class Ascomycetes
Cross Section Of Lichen Perithecium

During the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of people in Europe were afflicted with ergotism, a malady characterized by gangrenous extremities, convulsions, madness and death. They ate rye bread infested with ergot fungus containing several peptide alkaloids of the ergotamine group (including ergotamine, ergosine and ergocristine) that affect blood vessels. Since they are potent vasoconstrictors, these alkaloids can cause gangrene if ingested in sufficient dosages. Known as "St. Anthony's Fire," ergotism was a dreaded disease in Europe. Between 990 and 1129, more than 50,000 people died of this disease in France. The disease became so devastating that in 1093 in southern France the people formed an order to take care of the afflicted, and they chose St. Anthony as their patron saint. One of the symptons of the disease was an intense burning sensation, hence the name St. Anthony's Fire. It wasn't until 1597 (500 years after the first epidemic of ergotism) that physicians finally associated this horrendous disease with the ergot on rye. Another form of ergot poisoning involves severe hallucinations and madness, caused by pschoactive alkaloids in the sclerotia. [In case you are wondering, another hallucinogenic alkaloid, mescaline, comes from the Mexican peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and the South American San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi), and has a chemical structure remarkably similar to the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. Mescaline and the sacred peyote cactus are discussed in a subsequent section.] For more information about these alkaloids please refer to the references below, particularly those by Richard E. Schultes.

A dried grain spike of rye grass (Secale cereale) infected with ergot (Claviceps purpurea). Some of the grains have been replaced by a dark, compact, fungal mass called a sclerotium. The hardened sclerotia superficially resemble rat pellets (the droppings of a rat). The sclerotia contain valuable vasoconstricting alkaloids of the ergotamine group and lysergic acid alkaloids which are the precursor for LSD 25 (d-lysergic acid diethylamide).

A number of important medical discoveries have come from the study of ergot fungus and ergotism. In 1935 the alkaloid ergonovine was isolated from ergot. Since it causes strong muscular contractions, it has been used to induce labor and to control hemmorrhaging. The alkaloid ergotamine has been used extensively to relieve migraine headaches through the constriction of blood vessels. Thousands of pounds of ergot sclerotia are harvested each year from midwestern rye farms, and are used for various prescription drugs. In 1943 chemist Albert Hofmann was studying ergot fungus, whose nuclei contain lysergic acid. When he added diethylamide he produced lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. While working on this new compound, Hoffman discovered that its strong hallucinogenic effects were similar to that of natural lysergic acid alkaloids in the seeds of "ololiuqui," morning glories used by the Aztecs in their religious ceremonies.


A Hallucinogen Alkaloid Found In Seeds & Toads

Another fascinating indole alkaloid called bufotenine occurs in the seeds of Yopo or Paricá (Anadenanthera peregrina), a South American leguminous tree of the Orinoco River basin (not to be confused with the leguminous genus Adenanthera). Indians of this region prepare a powder from the ground seeds which they use as a hallucinogenic snuff. Bufotenine (5-hydroxydimethyltryptamine) is a derivative of the indole alkaloid tryptamine, which is derived from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is one of the 8 (9) essential dietary amino acids in humans (which we cannot synthesize), and is widely distributed in the animal kingdom. Interestingly enough, bufotenine is also present in the skin secretion of certain toads of the genus Bufo, and explains the practice of licking toads by some people. The popular dietary supplement 5-HTP, sold at natural food stores, is 5-hydroxytryptophan. It is made from an extract of Griffonia simplicifolia seeds from coastal West Africa. 5-HTP is a metabolic precursor of serotonin and is taken as a treatment for depression and sleeping disorders. This herb may conflict with other antidepressant medications, and it would be wise to consult with a knowledgeable physician before taking it.

See Fly Agaric And Psilocybe Mushrooms
Go To The WAYNE'S WORD Fungus Article
Photos Of South American Poison Dart Frogs


The Glorious Morning Glories

The morning-glory family (Convolvulaceae) contains at least 50 genera and more than 1000 species, from high-climbing vines and woody lianas of the tropical rain forest to prostrate, trailing perennials. They decorate our fences, trellises and walls with lush green foliage and colorful funnel-shaped blossoms, and form lovely green carpets of dichondra lawn. Several vines of this family provide us with valuable and nutritious root crops, including jicama and sweet potatoes. [Note: The common supermarket jicama sold in the U.S. comes from the leguminous vine Pachyrhizus erosus (Fabaceae) from Mexico and Central America.] Although the Morning-Glory Family is usually associated with climbing vines, it also includes erect herbs, shrubs and a few trees. One unusual genus includes the parasitic dodders (Cuscuta) which smother their host with masses of twining, spaghetti-like orange stems. Other morning glories have invaded cultivated fields and have become troublesome weeds. Called "bindweeds," they literally twine themselves over other plants that happen to be in their growth path. Some morning glories, including the infamous Mary's bean (Merremia discoidesperma) are excellent seed voyagers and have colonized the distant beaches of tropical islands and atolls.

Seeds of two infamous Mexican morning glories, Ipomoea tricolor (syn. I. violacea) and the white-flowered Turbina corymbosa (syn. Ipomoea burmanni), were taken in a drink by Aztec priests in order to commune with their gods. The ground seeds were only ingested by experienced persons who understood the proper "spiritual dosage." The seeds from the white-flowered morning glory Turbina corymbosa are called "ololiuqui" (pronounced o-low-lee-oo-key) by native Indians of Mexico, and to this day provide them with an important medicinal and religious ritual in their cultures. The black, angular seeds from the pink-flowered Ipomoea tricolor are called "tlitliltzin." An intoxicating drink made from the ground seeds of these species is administered by a shaman and is used by a number of different tribes for the devine recovery of illness. This fascinating story is explained in more detail by R.E. Schultes and A. Hofmann (1979) in Plants of the Gods.

Like other sacred, mind-altering plants used by the Aztecs for worshipping their gods, the use of ololiuqui was forbidden by the Spaniards. Spanish attempts to eradicate the use of these plants resulted in secrecy by the Aztecs. As in the teonanacatl mushrooms, the identity of the plants known as ololiuqui was shrouded in mystery. Because of the similar, trumpet-shaped (funnel-shaped) blossoms, the plant was thought to be Datura, a known hallucinogen still used in Mexico. Finally in the 1930s, the seeds were clearly linked to species of morning glories.

According to R. E. Schultes and A. Hofmann (1979), the morning glory seeds contain a lysergic acid alkaloid called ergine (d-lysergic acid amide), better known as "natural" LSD. The more potent synthetic LSD is d-lysergic acid diethylamide (see illustration at left).

Synthetic LSD has two additional ethyl groups (C2H5) and is about 100 times more potent. Before it was discovered in morning glories, ergine was only known from ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a rust fungus that infects grains. Psychoactive alkaloids, such as ergine and psilocybin (from the mushrooms Psilocybe, Stropharia, Paneolus and Conocybe) contain the indole structure, a double carbon-nitrogen ring also found in the natural neurotransmitter serotonin. These alkaloids may interfere or compete with the action of serotonin in the brain, causing psychedelic visions, delusions and hallucinations.

See Two LSD-Containing Morning Glories In Flower


Locoweeds: Wild And Crazy Plants

Unlike the previous mind-altering plants, the next group to be discussed are not taken as drugs plants. If ingested they can cause serious and permanent damage to the central nervous system. Nonetheless, their poisonous effects on unfortunate herbivores is quite fascinating and may lead to a better understanding of certain human genetic disorders. These plants are most commonly associated with abnormal behavior in livestock and other range animals, and are often referred to as locoweeds. They belong to the large and diverse genus of flowering plants, Astragalus. A few western locoweeds also belong to the closely related genus, Oxytropis. Literally hundreds of different species of locoweeds grow in almost every conceivable habitat, from coastal bluffs, grasslands and deep desert canyons to sun-baked sand dunes and rocky alpine summits. In fact, Astragalus is one of the largest genera of flowering plants with approximately 2,000 different species in the northern hemisphere. Just trying to identify all the different kinds of locoweeds in the western states can be truly overwhelming. Although most North American species are poisonous, several kinds were apparently eaten by native Americans and some are actually good forage plants.

Locoweeds belong to the enormous legume family (Fabaceae), along with beans, peas, clover, alfalfa and more than 15,000 other related species. They are sometimes called milk vetches from the notion that milk secretion in goats was increased when they fed on the common Old World forage species (Astragalus cicer). Like many legumes, the leaves are typically divided into a dozen or more leaflets, and the flowers resemble small pea blossoms. Some species produce inflated seed pods that make a distinct popping sound if you step on them. Locoweeds are also called rattleweed because of the bladder-like, inflated pods, particularly when a gust of wind rattles the seeds inside. Astragalus is derived from a Greek word meaning anklebone, the plural of which means dice. Perhaps the dice connotation refers to the rattling of seeds inside papery pods, like the sound of dice in a thrower. In anatomy, the astragalus or talus is one of seven bones in the ankle joint. Anklebones were apparently used for dice by ancient Greeks, and to this day, veteran crapshooters in Las Vegas refer to dice as "bones." Since adult astragalus bones are a little too large for dice, some of the smaller, cuboidal or cuneiform anklebones were probably used.

Many species of locoweeds native to the western United States are known to be poisonous to livestock (L.F. James, Noxious Range Weeds, 1991). The actual mechanism of locoweed poisoning may involve: (1) Toxic levels of selenium absorbed from the soil, (2) nitrogen-containing sugar compounds called nitroglycosides, and (3) potent swainsonine alkaloids causing a condition called "locoism." According to P.R. Cheeke and L.R. Shull (Natural Toxicants in Feeds and Poisonous Plants, 1985), of the 372 species of Astragalus in North America, about 25 species contain toxic levels of selenium, 263 contain poisonous nitroglycosides, and 13 cause locoism. Some of the poisonous species may be placed in more than one of the above three categories. Bee keepers in Nevada have reported serious honey bee losses after working the flowers of spotted locoweed (Astragalus lentiginosus). The toxicity of Astragalus to bees is unusual because relatively few plants produce nectar or pollen which is poisonous to honey bees. The notoriously toxic "diablo locoweed" (A. oxyphysus) is well-known in California and some ranchers have attempted to eradicate it from their property. Apparently it wasn't removed from all grazing land because several years ago the editor of WAYNE'S WORD® observed a deceased steer lying in a pasture containing this locoweed in Kern County.

Some species of Astragalus accumulate toxic levels of selenium and often have a peculiar malodorous foliage. In fact, specimens of A. bisulcatus and the desert species A. crotalariae can produce the dominant scent in herbarium cabinets for many years. Locoweed indicators of selenium-rich soils are sometimes referred to as "poison vetches," and may contain selenium levels of several hundred to 10,000 ppm (parts per million) (P.R. Cheeke and L.R. Shull, 1985). Several names have been applied to selenium poisoning in cattle, including "blind staggers" and "alkali disease." In severe cases, the animals become lame and emaciated, and often fall into a kneeling position from which they are unable to rise. Toxic levels of selenium also occur in other wild plants of western North America, such as species of Stanleya, colorful shrubby perennials in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). Selenium poisoning of fish and waterfowl from has been well documented in California's Central Valley. In the human body, the trace element selenium is needed for the function of certain enzymes, and may serve as a cellular antioxidant thought to suppress certain tumors (M.A. Weiner and J.A. Weiner, Herbs That Heal, 1994). Natural sources of selenium come from the allium vegetables, including onions and garlic.

The majority of locoweed species poisonous to livestock contain toxic nitroglycosides. The extreme toxicity of nitroglycosides, such as miserotoxin, in livestock is caused by the production 3-nitropropionic acid (NPA) through a complex metabolic pathway involving enzymes of rumen microbes and the liver (W. Majak and M.A. Pass, Toxicants of Plant Origin , 1989). Another toxic reaction involves the oxidation of hemoglobin by nitrites produced by the hydrolysis of miserotoxin. The oxidized hemoglobin (called methemoglobin) is incapable of carrying oxygen. NPA is lethal to animals because it inhibits the vital enzyme succinate dehydrogenase inside mitochondria, thus blocking ATP synthesis and ultimately causing cellular death (M.A. Pass, Plant-Associated Toxins, 1994). In some animals with different gastrointestinal microbes, such as rats and rabbits, the miserotoxin is not converted into lethal NPA; however, studies indicate that death in rabbits is due to nitrite poisoning (W. Majak and M.A. Pass, 1989). Symptoms of acute livestock poisoning involve general weakness and loss of neural control, convulsions, blindness, coma, and death. More than 200 species of Astragalus in North America contain nitroglycosides, including A. cibaria, A. falcatus, and A. miser. The latter species has also been known to cause high mortality in foraging honey bees.

One of the most destructive types of livestock poisoning by locoweed ingestion is called "loco disease" or locoism. It is caused by at least two very potent indolizidine alkaloids, swainsonine and swainsonine-N-oxide, and impels horses and cattle to act in a wild and crazy manner. Some authorities only apply the term "locoweed" to species of Astragalus and Oxytropis containing these alkaloids, such as A. lentiginosus, A. mollissimus, A. wootonii, O. lambertii, and O. sericea. Swainsonine was originally isolated from the Australian darling pea (Swainsona) and more recently from the spotted locoweed (Astragalus lentiginosus) (R.J. Molyneux and L.F. James, Loco Intoxication: Indolizidine Alkaloids of Spotted Locoweed, 1981). Consumption of locoweeds for two weeks to a month is necessary before obvious signs of poisoning are evident (L.F. James and K.E. Painter, Locoweed Poisoning in Livestock, 1989). Animals suffering from locoism may exhibit depression, a staggering gait, and general muscular incoordination. They may withdraw from other animals and become solitary. The final stages are characterized by difficulty in eating or drinking, paralysis and death. Afflicted animals often become nervous, or easily aggravated, and exhibit a complete loss of depth perception. There are reports of animals being injured or killed by running through fences or falling into ponds and streams. When plenty of other forage is available, animals tend to avoid locoweed; however, poisoned animals apparently acquire a taste for it and actually seek it out (P.R. Cheeke and L.R. Shull, 1985).

The cause of locoism at the cellular level is very complex. The swainsonine alkaloids inhibit or tie up the key enzyme mannosidase resulting in the accumulation of mannose sugar in nerve cells and irreparable damage to brain tissue (P.R. Dorling, C.R. Huxtable and P. Vogel, Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology, 1978). This condition is remarkably similar to a genetic deficiency of the same vital enzyme in humans called mannosidosis (P.A. Ockermann, Mannosidosis, 1973). Mannosidosis is a genetic disorder called a lysosomal storage disease, in which cells of the central nervous system become filled with cytoplasmic vacuoles of mannose due to the lack of the vital enzyme mannosidase that is essential in breaking down mannose. The actual vacuoles are swollen organelles called lysosomes where the enzymatic breakdown process normally occurs. Lysosomal storage diseases, such as mannosidosis, are often caused by recessive genes and result in paralysis and death within a few years following birth. Perhaps one of the better known storage diseases is Tay Sachs Disease, in which nerve cells fill up with a lipid called ganglioside or GM2 because they lack the vital enzyme HEX A needed to break down GM2. Studies of the biochemical effects of locoweed poisoning on the central nervous system of cattle may lead to a better understanding of these tragic human neurological disorders.

Native American Indians were apparently aware of the poisonous properties of some locoweeds and avoided them. Other drug plants are occasionally called locoweeds, such as the hallucinogenic jimsonweed (Datura), and some of these were commonly utilized by Indians during ceremonial rituals. In the southwest, Cahuilla Indians utilized the pods of at least one unknown Astragalus locoweed (J.L. Bean and K.S. Saubel, Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, 1972). The pods were pounded up and mixed with beans and other foods, perhaps as a spice or flavor enhancer. An Arizona locoweed (A. ceramicus), with beautiful brown-mottled pods, produces sweet, edible rootstocks which are reportedly eaten in spring by Hopi children. Another locoweed of the prairie and plains states (A. crassicarpus) produces edible fleshy pods (K. Kindscher, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide, 1987). It is known locally as ground plum, Indian pea, or buffalo bean, and the pods were eaten, raw or cooked, by Indians and white settlers. The perennial roots of three species, including A. canadensis, A. caryocarpus, and A. pictus-filifolius, were eaten raw or cooked by Blackfoot Indians of Montana and Hopi of Arizona. Not all locoweeds are poisonous to people; however, because of the difficulty in identifying some species, it would definitely NOT be advisable to try any of them in gourmet dishes. It would actually be easier to select edible mushrooms from the deadly species, especially with all of the pictorial mushroom guides available today.

See Locoweeds And A Dead Steer


The Mescal Bean And Peyote Cactus

Probably the most famous New World hallucinogenic plant is peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a small, spineless cactus native to the Rio Grande valley of Texas and the northern and central parts of the Mexican plateau region. Another species (L. diffusa) is native to the Mexican state of Queretaro. The rounded, gray-green stem crown (top) is radially-divided into sections, each bearing a small meristematic region (called an areole) from which arises a tuft of hairs. The crown tapers into a thick carrot-like root that extends into the ground.

Called "peyotyl" by the Aztecs, this was truly a sacred plant used in religious ceremonies where they communicated with their gods. The spiritual, religious usage of peyote persists to this day by the Tarahumara, Huichol and other Mexican Indians, as well as by members of the Native American Church in the United States and western Canada. The Indians cut off the crowns and sun-dry them into brown, mushroom-shaped "mescal buttons" that last for long periods and can be shipped to distant places for use. After the crown (button) dries, the soft, fleshy tissue is reduced in volume. For this reason the tufts of hairs appear much larger and occupy a larger proportion of the button. The Aztec word peyotyl means "caterpillar cocoon," referring to the white, woolly tufts of hairs. When the top is severed, the plant often resprouts with new crowns so that many-crowned peyote plants are common. Except for the woolly hairs, the dried, peyote buttons superficially resemble the cap of a dried mushroom.

Spanish conquerers tried to ban the use of peyote by native Indians. By 1720 the eating of peyote was prohibited throughout Mexico, but peyote was so strongly rooted in native Indian lore that its use actually spread to other tribes. The Spanish thought the peyote buttons used by Aztecs were mushrooms, and it wasn't until the 1930s that researchers finally discovered that the Aztecs were actually using both peyote (peyotyl) and psilocybin mushrooms (teonanacatl) in their religious ceremonies.

The peyote cactus contains more than 50 different alkaloids, but the most active hallucinogen is mescaline. The chemistry, botany and history of peyote is discussed in a fascinating book by E.F. Anderson (Peyote: The Divine Cactus, 1976). Mescaline has a chemical structure similar to the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. It is also structurally similar to the neurohormone norepinephrine (noradrenalin) and to the stimulant amphetamine. In the peyote cactus, mescaline is formed in a complex pathway from the amino acid tyrosine. A similar pathway in humans produces epinephrine (adrenalin) and its demethylated precursor norepinephrine from tyrosine. Dopamine and its precursor L-dopa are also derived from a tyrosine pathway. The following illustration shows the remarkable molecular similarity between mescaline and dopamine:

Mescaline also occurs in several other cactus species, including the commonly cultivated, night-blooming, South American San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi). In the Andes of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia the natives call this tall, columnar cactus "aguacolla" or "giganton." An intoxicating drink called "cimora" is made from the boiled stems. According to R.E. Schultes (1976), the drink may be spiked with other potent hallucinogens, including species of Brugmansia (Datura). The cut stems are sometimes seen in market places of the northern Peruvian Andes in neatly stacked piles. There are about 25 species of Trichocereus native to South America. They are typically large, tree-like cacti with cylindrical, ribbed stems and large, nocturnal, white blossoms. Other species within this fascinating genus may also contain mescaline.

See A Beautiful San Pedro Cactus In Full Bloom
Another Beautiful Night-Blooming San Pedro Cactus

Contrary to popular rumors, mescaline is not found in the bright red, poisonous seeds of the beautiful, drought-resistant shrub called mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora); however, they do inhabit a similar range in the arid lands of the southwestern United States and Mexico. Mescaline is also not related to the highly intoxicating beverage called "mescal" or "mezcal," made from the fermented and distilled juices of several North American species of Agave, including A. americana and A. atrovirens. Incidentally, the fermented juice is called pulque, and the highly-alcoholic distilled products include mezcal and tequila. The seeds of mescal bean contain another potent and dangerously poisonous alkaloid, cytisine, which was ingested by some North American Indian tribes in a vision-seeking "Red Bean Dance" prior to the widespread use of peyote. According to R.E. Schultes (1976) mescal beans have been discovered in Indian sites dating before AD 1000, and from one site dating back to 1500 BC. In fact, to this day the leader of the peyote ceremony in some of these tribes (called the "roadman") wears a necklace made from bright red mescal beans. [For biology students, cytisine is not to be confused with the pyrimidine base cytosine found in DNA and RNA.]

One of the most interesting stories concerning the use of peyote north of Mexico concerns Quanah Parker, son of a Comanche war chief (Nokoni) and Cynthia Parker (a white woman who was captured by the Indians). [For more information about this remarkable man, please refer to B. Neeley (1995) The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times Of Quanah Parker, and Weston La Barre (1975) The Peyote Cult.] In 1884, Quanah Parker became seriously ill and was treated by a Mexican curandera. Quanah regained his health and recognized that peyote could be a useful factor in binding his people together. The latter half of the 19th century (post Civil War period) was a time of turmoil and humiliation for the American Indian tribes. Their pristine hunting lands were gradually being taken away from them; they were swindled by federal authorities; they were forced to move to reservations far from their homes; they were forced to attend schools that denied their heritage; they were corrupted by the white man's "firewater" (alcohol); and they had Christianity forced upon them by missionaries. Quanah fashioned a series of ceremonies, with cultural elements from Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, and parts of Christianity. This was a good time for the peyote religion--to bring native people dignity and hope of survival, and to bring them spiritual sustenance. The peyote religion spread rapidly during the late 1800s and early 1900s. With the assistance of James Mooney, an ethnologist with the Smithsonian Institution, the Native American Church was finally established in 1918. According to Benjamin Capps (The Great Chiefs, 1975), Quanah Parker once said to a white listener: "The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus; the Indian goes into his teepee and talks to Jesus."

See The Mescal Bean And Peyote Cactus

References About Plant Alkaloids:

  1. Arora, D. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified (Second Edition). Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

  2. Anderson, E.F. 1980. Peyote: The Divine Cactus. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona.

  3. Bean, L.J. and K.S. Saubel. 1972. Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Malki Museum Press, Banning, California.

  4. Cheeke, P.R. and L.R. Shull. 1985. Natural Toxicants in Feeds and Poisonous Plants. Avi Publishing Co., Inc., Westport, Conn.

  5. Dewitt, D. and P.W. Bosland. 1996. Peppers of the World: An Identification Guide. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

  6. Dorling, P.R., Huxtable, C.R. and P. Vogel. 1978. "Lysosomal Storage in Swainsona spp. Toxicosis: An Induced Mannosidosis." Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology 4: 285-295.

  7. Fuller, T.C. and E. McClintock. 1986. Poisonous Plants of California. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.

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